NYC Talk: What Is Not Spiritual Materialism, Feb 8 2011

(This is a transcript of a dharma talk given by Kenneth Folk in New York City, February 8th, 2011. Edited for clarity.)

Tonight I’d like to talk about spiritual materialism. “Spiritual materialism”, as far as I know, is a phrase coined by Trungpa Rinpoche in his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. And it’s such a great book. It’s a classic.

As I recall, Trungpa begins by giving examples of what spiritual materialism is—for example, when you have to have the perfect little meditation blanket, and you become part of a meditation scene, and you go to a meditation centre, and you try to pretend you’re Asian if you’re not, and you try to take on the persona of a good yogi, a good meditator. So, depending on what stage of your practice you’re in when you read the book you might be busted by that and you might not. If you are, it’s okay; you’ll probably grow out it and you’ll probably come to some other understanding of why you should be meditating, or why you want to meditate.

But even if you’re past that phase or were never in that phase, you read the next page and you learn something more about spiritual materialism. So, it might be something like, “I’m doing it in order to be calm.” In this case, meditation–which is usually thought of as a grand and wonderful thing –is essentially reduced to Valium: “I’m meditating in order to be calm.” This too is spiritual materialism.

You keep on reading, and even if you’ve come to some lofty idea like “I’m doing it in order to master certain states, to become a meditation master”–so in Theravada Buddhism that would be becoming a jhana master–well, that too is spiritual materialism: “I’m doing this in order to get something.”

So why do I want to become a meditation master anyway? “Well, so that I can say I’ve done it, or because I’m interested in doing it. I’m learning to speak French, too. I’d like to be able to learn French and become a jhāna master.” Both of these are beautiful and very valuable things. And in the case of jhāna, spiritual materialism.

“Ah,” but you say, “That’s not what I’m interested in. I understand that jhāna is just a means to an end. I’m doing it because I want to train the mind in order to get enlightened.”

According to Theravada Buddhism, there’s a very structured path where you progress through all these stages and states, and then one day you finally get enlightened.

But that’s still spiritual materialism: “I want the lapel pin of Enlightenment.” When you think about it, how could you possibly know what enlightenment is unless you’re already enlightened? So we have an idea. We’re making up a story: “There’s something called enlightenment, and I’m going to get it. Other people are going to know that I’m enlightened and treat me accordingly. I’m going to get status out of it too. I might even get a job out of it, because then I can become a meditation teacher, and then I can make my living doing a high-prestige job (admittedly, usually a low-paying one). But this is still spiritual materialism.

Those of us who are interested in Pragmatic Dharma are especially likely to fall prey to some form of spiritual materialism. Because we do often talk about states and stages and we get very specific about techniques to be mastered and paths of enlightenment to be attained.

So what would not be spiritual materialism? That’s the question.

I remember reading through Trungpa’s book and I kept asking myself this question. Basically on every page I kept getting busted for being a spiritual materialist. I was always trying to get something out of this. I thought that if I kept reading the book I’d get to the point where Trungpa would explain what is not spiritual materialism, and then I could get that. But Trungpa never explained that. As far as I know, there isn’t any place in the book where he says “Okay, so this is what is not spiritual materialism, and this is what you should do.” And if you think about it, that would kind of defeat the purpose.

We can identify two major movements within a meditator’s career. And the first one really does have to do with getting stuff. It has to do with getting the states and the stages, and getting enlightened. And it has a lot to do with manipulating your experience. You would like to get into your happy place. Now, your happy place is conceived of differently as you move along. For a beginning yogi to be able to get even a whiff of the first jhāna, or even to be calm… this is what you want. That’s why you’re meditating. But you soon tire of that, and you have to increase the dosage and go to second jhāna to get your fix and so on. When you get sick of that you need to go to the third. And there are a bunch of jhānas! There are eight conventional jhānas, and then at a certain stage you get access to five more. And they’re all wonderful. Spectacular. Well, if not spectacular, then certainly divine.

But is that really why we’re doing this? So we can upgrade our happy place to something even more divine and exquisite than the last one? And if not, then why the devil are we doing it? Let’s say we’re mastering the jhānas in order to progress through the Four Paths of Enlightenment. So that’s something else we need to get. One of the reasons Theravada Buddhism and Pragmatic Buddhism are attractive to Westerners is because we can really wrap our minds around something that linear. “Show me the map and give me the techniques and let me track my progress step by step through these states and stages. I can really relate to that.” In fact, when I first heard about this, having wandered around in the desert of my own mind for about six years after my first opening, wondering what meditation was and why I was doing it, yet feeling compelled to do it… well, after about six years of that, reading The Three Pillars of Zen, and Ram Dass, and Ouspensky, and all sorts of very mystical people, I still had no clue about what this was all about, except that there might be some airy-fairy thing called “enlightenment” that generally speaking my culture did not acknowledge at all. But the people who had it–who tended to be Asian–they said it was the most wonderful thing ever. I interpreted that to mean that it would solve my problems.

I remember reading Ken Wilber’s Spectrum of Consciousness in about 1989. He was talking about enlightenment as a developmental process. Now it began to make sense for me. There was this developmental process that carried on after Piaget’s stages of childhood development: there’s this kind of optional development that goes on into adulthood. If you practice, you can get to this, and apparently it makes you happy. Wilber goes on and on brilliantly in his book about how to understand this developmental process, and then there’s maybe one line in the book, as I recall, where it says something about “For those of you who are interested in actually taking up this practice, there are many resources available.” And I thought, “What? I have no idea what resources are available! I would love to know, because I don’t even know where to begin. All I know is that there’s this theoretical development, and that something happened to me a few years ago that made me interested in it all of a sudden.”

I met an American Buddhist teacher named Bill Hamilton in about ‘89. He said something to me that was a real turning point. He said, “Yes, there is something called enlightenment. And I have it, at least to some degree. And there’s a map that shows you how to get it, there’s a map that shows you where you are along the way and there is a very structured set of practices that will get you there.” Well, my mind was blown by this. This was exactly was what I could wrap my rationalistic, positivistic mind around. As I applied myself to these techniques, the practice began to unfold just as predicted in the maps. It really works.

Part of my job now is to help people move through these developmental stages, to teach them the techniques, to help them understand where they are, to help them get unstuck when they were stuck, and then what? So what happens, when you get to some theoretical ideal endpoint? What happens then? Has anyone ever gotten to that? And what does it look like when they do? Now notice that all of this is spiritual materialism. This is something to get.

So talking about these two major movements: the first part of a yogi’s career is involved with getting enlightened and about manipulating their experience to have a pleasant state. When your hear people talking about their meditation, what they say is “I didn’t have a very good meditation today.” Well, how do you know that? “Well, because it was unpleasant.” It’s always some variation on this theme. So the second movement in the yogi’s career comes when they say “Oh. What if I could become interested in my experience even when it’s not pleasant? And what if I could just avoid the temptation to manipulate my experience to make it pleasant? What would that be like? Well, for one thing I wouldn’t have to sit cross-legged, with my shoulders hunched and my brow furrowed in order to try to become concentrated. That would be a benefit. What if meditation is not about cultivating any experience whatsoever?”

Now depending on the yogi, it will take more or less time to come to this transition. A person who’s really gifted in achieving states and stages, and very meticulous about mastering the techniques, interested in maps and mapping, and optimistic… it might take that person a really long time to make this transition to what we might think of as the mature stage of their practice. On the other hand, a yogi who is not particularly optimistic and who is terrible at experiencing states and stages, and who has no interest in maps but is motivated by their own suffering to continue to work, that person might come to it pretty quickly. That person might say, “You know, I just cannot sustain myself in any kind of state. Is there some kind of contentment, some kind of happiness or freedom that is robust enough to include whatever unsatisfactory state I happen to be in now?” And that is a moment of revelation.

Do you ever notice that when a lot of the people we revere as enlightened masters tell their story they did not come to this necessarily through a very systematic process of having mastered every state possible and then getting enlightened? In some cases, it seems to have happened almost out of the blue. Let’s face it, in some cases it does seem to have happened completely out of the blue. You hear stories about somebody who was waiting for a bus and lost her sense of self, and never got it back.

So what’s the relationship between all of these things that we can do to become a meditation master and get enlightened and actually being enlightened like the woman who was waiting for a bus and it just happened? Realistically speaking–and in keeping with the principles of Pragmatic Dharma as I think of it–the reason I teach the techniques of noting, for example, and concentration and all the states and stages is because if you do those practices you get more and more likely to have what happened to the woman waiting for the bus happen to you.

And most of all I teach these techniques because we cannot count on divine intervention. There’s no way to reproduce that. You might wait for as many buses as you want and not get enlightened. Nonetheless, there has to come a moment for everyone–and the moment could be now–when you embrace the understanding that everything is spiritual materialism if you have an agenda with it. And this very much ties in with [the question of] what would real contentment be? This kind of contentment that is so robust that it does not depend on my “happy place” at all. It would have to be something I can count on in any situation. If I’m kidnapped by aliens and they start taking out my internal organs, I have to have access to something–there must be something–that’s reliable. I have no confidence that I’m going to be able to enter jhāna in that situation.

But there is something I can do. There’s something I can do now. I can pay attention to what’s going on right now. Hearing, hearing, pressure, coolness. I can pay attention to the thoughts that come up when I say this. “Yeah, but what about…?” I can see what that does in the body. When those thoughts come up, it just so happens that some body sensations come up. They tend to be flows of tension and release in the body. Micro-sensations. And it’s very predictable that any thought that you think of as negative–any thought you don’t like–is accompanied by an unpleasant sensation. And in fact that’s the only way you would know that you don’t like the thought. There is no other way. If you consider it to be a bad thought, it’s because it hurts you physically. So this is always accessible. I can always notice: seeing, coolness, hearing. I can always notice these waves of sensation when the mind comes up with some reason why that’s not good enough. Because you know it’s happening. The thoughts are coming.

“What?” you may ask. “This is such a disappointment! How can you have the audacity to say this?” So you look at this thought, and you say, “okay, duly noted. How does this feel in the body?” Tension. Coolness. Notice how I’m not just satisfied to ask the question and then space out again. I’m proving it. I’m using a feedback loop. This is a pedagogical technique. I’m asking “How does this feel in the body?” and then I’m saying “Seeing, hearing, tension.” I’m proving it. No baloney.

Now if I do this and I just keep looping back into the body this way, the body is always in the present. It’s never in the past, never in the future. Unlike your thoughts, the body is right here. It’s very reliable and it keeps you honest. So in this moment of paying attention to what’s going on in this body, I’m present. And I prove it if I note “itching, seeing, hearing”. And as I keep looping back around into this moment via the body, something remarkable happens: I forget to suffer. The question of suffering or not suffering doesn’t come up. When you’re present, things are just as they are. This says nothing about the pleasantness of the experience. It’s completely independent of whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant.

So what is it that is not spiritual materialism? Well, being present in this moment is not spiritual materialism. For one thing, it doesn’t get you anything. And yet it is its own reward, a kind of reward that has been talked about by sages throughout the centuries and the millennia, and is somehow valued, by those who know, above all. And what is it? It’s nothing at all. It’s being present in this moment, with these flows of body sensation, with seeing and hearing, noticing your thoughts as thoughts, acknowledging them. We’re not trying to suppress thoughts. You see it happening: “Okay, there’s a thought. Duly noted. Thank you for passing by. How does this feel in the body?” Hearing, tension, pressure.

So in this simple act of being present in this moment, we have something that is infinitely robust. There will never be a time when you can’t notice your own experience.

Now it’s very important, as you hear this, that you’re noticing and monitoring your own mind and body to see where it goes with this. There’s a part of the mind that does not want to hear this at all. So you acknowledge that: “Those are thoughts and how does this feel in the body?”

We have layers upon layers of defenses. All of which can be short-circuited immediately by this one simple step. “Okay, fine. How does this feel in the body?” And then you prove it: “Seeing, hearing, tension, pressure.” It’s like a dead short with electricity: a short circuit. Imagine taking a big steel bar and just laying it across the positive and negative poles of a car battery. (Don’t do this by the way, it’ll blow up.) But if you did that, that’s called a dead short. You short-circuit it. So every time the mind comes up with one of these gambits, one of these loops — “Yeah, but…” –you say “Okay. How does this feel in the body? Seeing, touching, hearing.” This is bullet-proof.

So why doesn’t everybody do this? This is the remarkable thing. You hear all these enlightened guys going on about this all the time. “Being present is all.” And everybody goes “Yeah, yeah, right, right, being present is all!” So how come everybody doesn’t just do this?

Well, that woman who was waiting for a bus did. And yet it turns out not to be so easy. It’s very simple and yet not easy. So what do we do–practically speaking, because, after all, this is Pragmatic Dharma? Here’s what we do: we scaffold the student with all these practices and moving through the states and stages, becoming a meditation master, so that you can finally get to the point where you can realize that none of that stuff works. The only thing that would ever satisfy you is being present.

“Okay, how does this feel in the body?”

You find the happiness that does not depend on conditions. The kind of contentment that is so robust that nothing defeats it. You can be present with your own pain. You can let in all the pain around you and you can feel that as your own pain, and be present with it. You can listen to sounds of car horns in New York City and you can feel how your body reacts, and be present with that.

Become especially interested in your own boredom and your own aversion. Is there even the slightest desire to be doing anything other than this? And how does this feel in the body? Take the body all at once in this very diffuse way, feeling these flows of sensation. Notice your head balancing on your neck. Notice how it always finds its equilibrium point. It doesn’t stay there, but it always finds that point again.
This dynamic flow of sensation in this body is your life in this moment. For better or worse, this is your life. You have no other. So you just let it be. And you notice.
You get called away: your thoughts can call to you like a siren’s song – those beautiful phantom women who sit on the rocks and sing. The sound of the singing is so irresistible to sailors that they steer their ships towards the rocks and wreck. There’s a line from a Cream song: “Tales of brave Ulysses/ whose naked ears were tortured / by the sirens sweetly singing.” If you follow the siren’s song of your own thoughts you’ll crash on the rocks. It’s nobody’s fault, it isn’t bad, it happens all the time and has been happening to you your whole life, and now you can stop. So when you hear the siren’s song, you say “Thank you for singing. Duly noted. How does this feel in the body?” Now notice the annoyance that comes up: “This is very repetitive. I keep saying the same thing again and again.” You’ve got to be annoyed by this by now. So let that in. What does annoyance feel like in this body?

Do you see how irresistible this looping is? If you really do it, you really short-circuit it each time. “Okay, how does this feel in the body? Itching, tension.” No big deal. Nothing’s going to happen here. But you’re being present. You’re short-circuiting again. “Alright, nothing happened! Itching, hearing, I don’t care about that.” Fine. Duly noted. How does this feel in the body? How does this annoyance feel in the body? This irritation? Kenneth is picking at me like a scab. How does this feel in the body?

Being present in this moment is all. And everything we do – all the states and stages that we earn and attain – are as nothing compared to being present. So we will continue to work on states and stages, and I will continue to teach anyone who will listen the techniques for attaining states and stages, always hoping that somebody is going to just tip. “How does this feel in the body? Hearing, tension, release, seeing, stretching, hearing.”

This situation, right here, with all the traffic noise outside in the middle of Manhattan is the perfect situation in which to wake up. Probably much more conducive than some highly concentrated state with your earplugs in and your eyes closed and you’re in your secret room where nobody’s going to bother you. The odds of you waking up there are actually fairly slim! So here we are. And you don’t have to wake up forever. You just wake up a moment at a time. “This is my chance.” How does this feel in the body?

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